This Friday, if you were to witness the Haryana Legislative Assembly, you would find among the dusted kurtas and turbans, a man sitting on a pedestal- symbolically higher than that of the Governor, and the Chief Minister. What sets him apart, however, is the fact that his modesty is protected, only by a strategically placed dais. With his disarrayed French beard, glowing bespectacled eyes and renounced clothing, Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj, as he is referred to, by the Delhi Chief Minister, is one of the most known, among the Jain monks. The invitation to address the august House was extended by Haryana’s Education Minister; this in a state, where education is arguably the most maligned domain for interference and encroachment, by religious dogmas and beliefs.
The site was reminiscent of what George Orwell once wrote while reflecting upon Mahatma (the revered soul) Gandhi- “All saints should be judged as guilty until proven innocent.” One might wonder what a votary of Jainism- a religion known for its passivity and non-violence, would have to offer to statecraft- an arena of pragmatic activity, wherein convenient ruthlessness cannot be ruled out. Predictably, here the saint had nothing to offer, except for recognizing the specter of terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and advocating the utopian idea of spending the defense budget, on healthcare and education, instead. But before he did that, he absolved religion from the guilt of producing terrorism; thereby, conveniently insulating religion as a whole, and Islam in particular, from scrutiny.
Yet there is no political outrage from any quarter, against the visible casualty of secularism, in this whole episode. Imagine how the Indian Right would have reacted, if the Kerala Legislative Assembly chose Zakir Naik, to address the gathering. While Zakir Naik’s sermons are undoubtedly more venomous; in principle, both the scenarios would be nearly similar. Even Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, who does not leave any opportunity to attack BJP governments, tried to insulate the matter, by tweeting in the monk’s favor, implying that in a dog fight of religiosity, no one would stand behind.
Indian politicians continue to seek legitimacy and reassurance, from godmen and saints. This is not done just for public appeal and benefits. Indira Gandhi, daughter of the first and the last publicly atheist Prime Minister- Jawaharlal Nehru, genuinely sought the counsel of Chandraswami; so did Narasimha Rao. The Pradhanmantri TV series (ABP News) records how Charan Singh’s over-reliance on his astrologer, could have led to the breakup of the Janata party, long before it eventually happened. This mutual arrangement of offering legitimacy has produced the horrors of Bhindranwale, who was a state’s Frankenstein, seeking the support of both Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal, whenever convenient. More recently, Sant Rampal- whose amassed wealth was a sign of state support, had a brutal face-off with Haryana state government, leaving more than 200 injured. The exercise of evicting him engaged more than a total of 30,000 policemen. There is an urgent need to demarcate a clear line of separation between the domains of state, and religion. Haryana, with its Cow Slaughter Act, and the decision of imparting instructions inspired by Bhagavad Gita, is setting an unhealthy precedent. Although symbolic, the offering of a higher pedestal is repugnant; for even unelected medieval kings sat on the throne, surrounded by patron saints, who were seated at a lower level. Haryana is still an elected Assembly.
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